While stuck in traffic on Northbound 101 through South San Jose, it’s hard to miss Tully Road’s most infamous landmark: the three massive, multi-story windows topped with sloping, pointy skylights — and the 30-ft-tall statue of Chuck E. Cheese.
It might be hard to imagine the building as anything other than the home of quirky animatronics + hard to digest pizza, but originally, it housed the Magic Village Toy Store. Let’s dive into the decades before it housed the iconic Chuck E. Cheese.
The man behind the toy store
To a certain generation of San Joseans, the name “King Norman” will elicit vivid memories of Saturday mornings, bowls of cereal, and yearnings for the latest and greatest toys.
The King Norman Show ran from 1954 to 1961 on KGO-TV, and featured the titular monarch (née Norman Rosenberg), with royal robes, crown, and sceptre. The show consisted of Norman giving advice to an audience of children, and showcasing various toys from his store.
In 1974, King Norman opened the Magic Village Toy Store off Tully Road, and. those three massive, multi-story windows housed towering toy soldiers.
While details on the business are scarce, local legend indicates the store struggled to become profitable, and closed its doors only a few years after opening. The three giant toy soldier statues still live on as the mascots of the Children’s Museum of Stockton.
In the late 1970’s, the building was purchased by a man named Nolan Bushnell.
The Atari connection
For San Joseans of a slightly younger generation, the name Nolan Bushnell may elicit a similar level of nostalgia. Bushnell was the inventor of the video game Pong and co-founder of legendary video game company Atari.
Bushnell’s vision: Create a “family place” providing good food and entertainment for all ages. He would open the very first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater on South Winchester Boulevard in 1977 (currently the site of Santana Row).
At some point during the late 1970’s, Bushnell purchased the former Magic Toy Village off Tully Road, and converted the space into what it is today: three stories of pizza, video games, and animatronic musical theatre.
In place of the three toy soldiers, Nolan Bushnell commissioned sculptor Jeff Tritel to build the 30-ft polyurethane foam and fiberglass Charles Entertainment Cheese; bowler hat askew, purple vest, and a cigar. The sculpture currently holds the record for “World’s Largest Rat.”
Bushnell had sights beyond the Bay Area: He incorporated under the moniker “Pizza Time Theatre Inc.” and signed an agreement with Topeka Inn Management, Inc. to expand the brand to 16 states and 280+ restaurants.
Though Bushnell left the company during their first bankruptcy in 1984, the “family friendly” visage of Charles continues to this day in the windows of the Tully Road location.
Chuck, the rat, is a bit slimmer, a bit more hip, and has lost his signature bowler hat, cigar, and purple vest, in favor of a more modern purple t-shirt, jeans, and bright red shoes.
And though the building has changed many hands (and colors) over the years, the iconic triple-decker windows still remain a fixture in South San Jose.
Do you have a favorite memory at Chuck E Cheese? Let us know.